Sermon Preached at Stouffville United Church
Rev. Capt. Dr. John Niles
2nd Sunday of Advent
Christmas is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” But, let’s face it, for many of us it’s not. And the danger is that we can fall into feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge. This time of the year doesn’t always feel wonderful. Instead, for some, it can be a time of great stress and emotional pain. That stress can come from the busyness of the season, finances, unrealistic expectations, spending time with family and friends just to name a few or racing around trying to get the hot Christmas gift of the year.
Every year there is a new hot Christmas gift that everyone has to have. In 1985 it was Cabbage Patch dolls. In 1989, Nintendo’s Gameboy was the big thing. In 1996, Tickle Me Elmos were flying off the shelf. A couple of years late everyone had Furbys on their shopping list. The big thing in 2002 was the Apple Ipod. If you got one of those, your cool factor definitely went up! In 2005 X-Box was the big thing. You had to have one of those. In 2011 we went retro, and one of the hot gifts was the Angry Birds Board Game. And this year I understand it is a VR (Virtual Reality) head set and games.
Christmas can be full of hassles. And it was no less true at the time of Jesus’ birth. “When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (v. 13-15)
Scrooge said, “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer…? If I could work my will…every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
Charles Dickens put those words in the mouth of Ebenezer Scrooge, but we have all known the about the hassles of Christmas. Christmas costs too much, too much time in shopping and decorating, too much stress trying to get everything done. But the fact is this really isn’t new. The scriptures remind us that – it was a hassle for Joseph and Mary, too.
- The first hassle was Mary’s pregnancy.
- Joseph and Mary were betrothed, but not officially married.
- Joseph was ready to call the whole thing off until an angel explained the situation.
- Mary endured as an unwed mother, the hassle of a wedding, the whispers and guessing:
- Not long after the wedding the Emperor every male Israelite to return to their birthplace and pay a new tax; a bill Joseph hadn’t planned on paying, a trip he hadn’t planned on making. His bride is ready to give birth, now this extra expense and trip they need to take (do hassles of Christmas bills and Christmas trips sound familiar?)
- Joseph scrounges up the money, they head out for Bethlehem, where they meet another hassle: no room in the inn.
Over and over Joseph and Mary endure hassle after hassle all for the sake of the Baby. But notice something else: for every hassle. Yet even then God provided help. He sent Angels to explain what He’s doing. He provided funds for them to get to Bethlehem and provides a place of safety even if it was only in a stable. He sends the Wise Men’s gifts to finance the rescue Jesus from Herod.
Over and over the story reminds us God always provides help to deal with our hassles.
When Mary Wyly was pregnant with her first son, her husband took her shopping for new maternity clothes before Christmas. After they purchased several very pretty and expensive outfits, he put his arm around her. She was delighted when she heard him whisper; “Now I’m going to take you where they have the best diamond rings in the world. “Mary thought that this was a perfectly wonderful ending to a romantic ending to a perfectly wonderful day; until they drove up to Burger King. (Paul Decker, Don’t Give in to Evil)
Sometimes, things don’t always work out the way we would like.
Christmas can not only be full of hassles it can be full of hurt. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (v. 16-18)
There was an art contest held in a local school one Christmas season a few years ago in East Texas. One of the prize winners was a picture drawn by a nine-year-old boy showing three men, offering gifts to the baby Jesus in his manger. What made the picture unique is how the three gift presenters arrived—there was fire truck on the side of the picture. The principal asked the boy about his decision to draw the truck and the boy, in his heavy East-Texas accent, was quick to reply: “Well, the Bible says the wise men came from a-far.” Pain doesn’t take a holiday. Christmas can be a very painful time for many. Sometimes it’s grief missing a loved one who has passed on; sometimes it’s living in a sick or handicapped body. The single person or divorcee dreads spending another lonely Christmas wondering why. Families of military men and women miss loved ones even more at Christmas than any other time. Christmas can not only be full of hassles, but also full of hurt.
The truth is Christmas has been full of hurt ever since Jesus was born. The particular pain in this story comes after Joseph and Mary leave Bethlehem for Egypt. Herod tried to fool the Wise Men into showing him where this “King of the Jews” would be born so he could eliminate any competitors for his throne. When he figures out the Wise Men have fooled him, it sends him into one of his characteristic rages, and he gives orders for his troops to ride out to the little town of Bethlehem on a special mission. The soldiers see fear on the faces of the people as they ride in. Nobody knows for sure why they are there. Perhaps they start rounding up all the families with small children. From that group they sort out those with small sons. Finally, they call out the families with small sons 2 years old and younger.
One of my favorite Christmas Carols is by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When Longfellow wrote it, he had just heard that his son had been seriously wounded in battle. It would like to be that by the time he had received the news his son would have been dead.
As he sat in despair by the window, he heard the church bells chiming the arrival of Christmas morning. And he wrote,
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat,
Of peace on earth good will to men.
But then in his despair and anger at the war and the lack of peace in the world
and the miserable state humanity has sunk too he wrote
And in despair I bowed my head:
There is no peace on earth, I said;
For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
However, just then the bells rang loud and clear once more and they seemed to speak of God to Longfellow for he wrote,
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.
When all we look at seems to prove the people’s inhumanity to other people, we need to remember the power of God that still is at work in us and others. We need to remember the God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. We need to remember that because of Christ and Christmas, we have hope.
Christmas can bring hassles and hurt but it also brings hope. “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (v. 19-23)
Someone has said, “We can live forty days without food, eight days without water, four minutes without air, but only a few seconds without hope.” Though there is truth in this statement that fact is people do live lives of hopeless despair. People can spend all their lives looking for meaning, for purpose, for direction, People can live and die with absolutely no hope that they will live again after they take their last breath on earth. Do people live without hope? Millions do. But nobody has to live without hope.
There may be no greater example of this than the true story of The Christmas Truce of 1914: World War I had begun only months before, and the fighting on the Western Front between the Germans and the Allies was very fierce. Hope for a quick war was gone. Both armies knew they would be bitter enemies for years.
A system of trenches separated the two sides, with the area in between regarded as “No Man’s Land.” But on Christmas Eve, an unofficial truce began. German soldiers began singing “Silent Night” in German, and men on the other side of the great divide joined along in English. Soldiers who hours before had been attempting to kill one another were now singing together about the wonder of Christ’s birth.
As the night and the singing continued, the soldiers emerged out of their trenches to join one another in “No Man’s Land,” where they exchanged gifts, shared in burial services, and played soccer together. An estimated 100,000 soldiers along the Western Front laid down their weapons all that night and the next day. In subsequent years their commanders would demand that they continue fighting on Christmas Day, but in this one sacred interlude in 1914, a reminder of the incarnation caused a cease-fire. Even if for a brief moment, there was peace on earth and good will toward men.1
- Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 50.
And work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching. Sing like nobody’s listening. Live like it’s Heaven on Earth
You think about that. Amen